Tuesday, August 12, 2008
Weather or not, it's Beijing in August
|There was a rare sighting yesterday in Beijing—the sun and what passes for blue skies in August in this Chinese capital. For the first time in five days here, we actually spotted our shadows as we continued our version of the Olympic marathon, criss-crossing this grand city of deep history and 17 million people. The sun actually burned through the thick haze (who knows what we are actually breathing) that blankets Beijing like a silk comforter. And it was hot. Another searing and sticky day. The combination left me longing for Orange County’s "June gloom" as I peeled my backpack from my soggy T-shirt. Beijing weather is extreme – even wacky – by my cushy coastal standards.
Temperatures the first two days here were downright tropical. Highs were in the upper 90s, with oppressive humidity to match. Many foreigners, in Beijing for the Olympics, are part of large tours riding in air-conditioned buses or they hire drivers to shuttle them around in Audi and Hyundai sedans. Team Churm, however, is the mass-transit gang. We walk or ride subways or take taxis so the elements have been in play from the minute we arrived at our hotel in the city’s bustling financial district. The result is that we are constantly checking weather.com.
The heat is the killer. Without getting too personal, I used the public restrooms exactly once in two days, and not because of any phobia (though one trip to the public facilities could cause you to rethink eating and drinking for the duration of your Beijing stay). The fact is, you sweat out everything you drink. And believe me, we are chugging gallons of bottled water. Even the occasional beer never seems to reach your personal plumbing before it evaporates. Lord only knows how the Olympic distance runners will perform come race times next week.
The Beijing Summer Games motto is “One World. One Dream.” How about adding “One Puddle” for the perspiration on every forehead you pass by.
It could be worse. It could rain every day like it did on Day No. 3 of our Beijing visit. The morning broke with a light rain, a welcome change from the previous day’s heat. But by late afternoon, conditions went monsoon like. As we exited the Olympic Basketball Gymnasium we were handed plastic ponchos. One look outside told us why. Thunder, lightening and some of the heaviest rain I’ve ever seen had turned the massive concrete common area outside the arena into a lake, and nearby streets were torrents of foot deep runoff. The ponchos (with the Made in China tag) did little to stave off the inevitable soaking as we tried to hail a cab in the middle of rush hour.
The downpour lasted for nearly five hours and we were told later it was the result of “cloud seeding” efforts by the Beijing Municipal Meteorological Bureau to make it rain and clear the air. What it did was clear the streets of the crush of bicyclists who were seemingly swept away, or throngs of pedestrians that huddled in large knots beneath storefront awnings or under bus shelters. Weather has been a big concern for months leading up to The Games. The Chinese government hired nearly 32,000 specialists to help “engineer” the best conditions and deployed them at 26 stations throughout the central city and suburbs to monitor temperatures and air quality. The use of aircraft has also been employed to chemically inject the constant cloud cover over the city and cause it to rain on certain days.
Who really knows whether any of this is making much of a difference. The fact is, since the days of great Chinese emperors, there is plenty of evidence that Beijing this time of year isn’t much different than Chicago in late July. It’s miserable. We’re obviously not here for the weather.
But there is one consolation to all of this. My midday appetite has all but dried up. I think it’s the heat, but my wife is convinced it’s the lunch options—hot dog or deep fried scorpions on a stick. With a little red chili sauce both are considered tasty treats. I’ll stick to my granola bar.